College Football Odds, Picks, Futures: Calabrese’s Conference Champion Parlay, Including Alabama & Penn State
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images. Pictured: Head coach James Franklin (center) and the Penn State Nittany Lions.
This year, the races in the SEC and ACC feel relatively tame with two, maybe three, teams with legitimate conference title hopes. As for the rest of the country, 2023 promises to be a wide-open affair.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a four-team parlay of conference winners that pays out anywhere between 2,200-1 to 2,700-1, depending on the book. You read those odds correctly.
Now, this is a longshot for a reason, so remember to wager responsibly.
But each team still has a chance to make it to its respective conference title game, so let’s get to the picks.
Alabama Crimson Tide
To Win SEC (+300)
To paraphrase a famous Mark Twain quote, the reports of the death of the Alabama dynasty are greatly exaggerated.
Yes, Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr. have moved onto the NFL and left big shoes to fill on both sides of the football. And yes, this season’s receiving corps pales in comparison to the historically great wide receiver rooms Alabama assembled between 2017 and 2020.
But let’s talk big picture here. Alabama, from a pure talent perspective, has the best collection of four- and five-star players in the country. Bud Elliott’s Blue-Chip Ratio (BCR) tracks roster composition, and Alabama has a 90% BCR when accounting for the last four high school classes it's signed and an 88% BCR when factoring in the transfer portal.
That’s tops in the nation, giving the Tide a sizable lead over two-time defending national champion Georgia (77%) and huge advantages over SEC West neighbors Texas A&M (67%), LSU (66%) and Auburn (47%) when evaluating their post-portal BCRs.
So, we can stop with the hand-wringing that Alabama doesn’t have the horses to knock off Georgia. What the Tide need is one of their three capable quarterbacks to pop. I say "capable" because there’s something I can point to in Tyler Buchner, Ty Simpson and Jalen Milroe that indicates they could be high-end quarterbacks in 2023.
Buchner’s proved, in limited work at Notre Dame, that he is a dangerous dual-threat, and his five-touchdown bowl game against South Carolina was a taste of what he can do in Tommy Rees’ offense.
Jalen Milroe is far less polished as a passer, but he has another gear when he tucks it and runs. He would arguably be the nation’s best spread option running threat if he were to close fall practice as Alabama’s QB1.
And finally, Ty Simpson remains a bit of mystery with just five career pass attempts. But the five-star passer out of Martin, Tennessee, is the son of an FCS coaching legend and is very similar to Ian Book, a quarterback Tommy Rees worked with to great success at Notre Dame.
This leg will sink or swim with their home games against Tennessee on Oct. 21 and LSU on Nov. 4. That gives the Tide time to find their leader at quarterback.
And when it comes to their defense, I’m bullish on Alabama’s pass defense returning to the top 10 for the first time since 2017. Their talent in the secondary is overwhelming, blending five-stars like Kool-Aid McKinstry and Caleb Downs with veteran transfers Trey Amos (ULL) and Jaylen Key (UAB).
With passing attacks like Texas, Tennessee and LSU on the schedule, I’m glad this is a strength.
Penn State Nittany Lions
To Win Big Ten (+550)
James Franklin has been knocking on the door in the Big Ten East, winning six or more conference games in five of the past seven seasons in Happy Valley.
But the Nittany Lions haven’t been able to get past Ohio State or Michigan in recent years. Since winning the Big Ten in 2016, Penn State is 3-9 against the Buckeyes and Wolverines. It hasn't beaten both Michigan and Ohio State in the same season in 15 years.
So, why the optimism in 2023? The Nittany Lions have a potential superstar at quarterback and a defense that could emerge as the nation’s best.
Drew Allar, a five-star passer and third-ranked prospect overall in the 2022 class, looked the part in limited action last season. Consider this: Allar didn't produce a single turnover-worthy play in 71 dropbacks with Penn State last fall.
And when watching the ball explode out his hand, it’s clear as day that the Penn State offense will have a much higher ceiling with him slinging the ball around as opposed to Sean Clifford.
Penn State’s offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, turned Mason Rudolph into a legitimate Heisman contender at Oklahoma State back in 2017. Rudolph threw for 4,904 yards and 37 touchdowns as a classic dropback passer.
Allar has a bit more athleticism and a backfield that's so good, he won’t need to win games on his own. Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen were the first freshmen tandem in Big Ten history to run for over 700 yards each. They blew that record out of the water, accounting for 1,928 on the ground as a duo.
When you factor in an experienced offensive line (70.8% returning starts) headlined by the best left tackle prospect in America, it’s easy to envision the Penn State offense doing real damage this season.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions have it all. All-American candidates exist at all three levels of the defense.
Chop Robinson, Penn State’s next great edge rusher, just appeared on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freak List.” At 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds, the junior ran an electronically timed 4.47 40-yard dash this offseason and a lightning-quick shuttle of 4.22. People are whispering in State College that he’s a Micah Parsons clone.
At linebacker, Abdul Carter was handed a new number this offseason, a jersey swap of major significance. Carter is now “#11,” a number worn by two Linebacker U legends in Micah Parsons and LaVar Arrington.
Has he earned it? After 10.5 tackles for loss in his true freshman season, Carter (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) turned heads in the offseason with a 4.48 40-yard dash, a 4.35 shuttle and a broad jump of 10-7. That also landed him on Feldman's "Freak List."
And then there’s Thorpe Award watchlister Kalen King. He broke up 18 passes last season and picked off three. Playing in Joey Porter Jr.’s shadow, King still made the PFF, Phil Steele and Walter Camp All-American teams.
And finally, the schedule lines up nicely for Penn State to finally head to Indianapolis again as the Big Ten East champion. It travels to Ohio State on Oct. 21, but it gets a bye and a home tilt with UMass leading up to that. Then it hosts Michigan on Nov. 11, sandwiched between games at Maryland and vs. Rutgers.
That’s as good as it’s going to get for Penn State from a scheduling perspective in the East.
To Win AAC (+470)
The American Athletic Conference should check its ID because I’m not sure it’s aware it checked “organ donor” when it was formed back in 2013. Nonetheless, the AAC became just that, handing over it’s invaluable assets — Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — to the Big 12 this offseason.
Michael Aresco and the conference did their best to replace those programs, which had won five of the AAC’s eight conference championship games. The result is six new programs in the AAC — two doormats in Charlotte and Rice, two competitive programs in FAU and North Texas and two schools that have been playing football at high level in recent years in UTSA and UAB.
With nearly half its membership just joining this season, 2023 promises to be fairly wide open.
The Roadrunners enter as back-to-back Conference USA champions. They return their head coach, Jeff Traylor, a Texas high school coaching legend turned G5 rockstar.
Frank Harris also returns at quarterback for his seventh season in college with a hefty NIL deal in tow. The smooth lefty has 98 career touchdowns (74 passing, 24 rushing) and took the leap to superstardom last year with 41 total scores and over 4,000 yards passing.
It wasn’t all great news for UTSA this offseason, though. It lost star wide receiver Zakhari Franklin to Ole Miss and Will Stein — the program’s offensive coordinator — to Oregon.
I trust in Traylor and new OC Justin Burke to keep the good times rolling in the Alamo City given the weapons at their disposal.
The Roadrunners’ receiving corps is loaded despite the loss of Franklin. De’Corian Clark is on track to return from an ACL injury. Joshua Cephus is a terror in the slot, and UTSA has him slotted to be its “F” receiver again this fall. That position is moved all around the offense, from slot receiver to an H-Back hybrid role and even splitting him out wide as an "X" receiver.
Cephus missed the UTSA bowl game due to off-field issues stemming from a DWI charge. These charges have been resolved, so he’ll be good to go in Week 1.
The final piece of the receiving room is Willie McCoy who could be the Roadrunners' secret weapon this fall. The JUCO transfer was an All-American kick returner and has big-play ability, particularly when he’s facing one-on-one coverage.
And I haven’t even mentioned Kevorian Barnes, a young back who will give AAC defenses problems. He’s reminiscent of former third-team All-American Sincere McCormick and exploded at the end of last season, combining for 313 rushing yards in the CUSA title game and bowl game against Troy.
The UTSA defense has a chance to be special in the secondary, thanks to the return of Rashad Wisdom. The Roadrunners were middle of the pack in FBS in scoring and rushing defense last season, but if their pass defense gets a little better, this will be one of the AAC's best defenses.
Their schedule is ideal, dodging SMU and Memphis, while drawing potential dregs in UAB, East Carolina, Rice and USF all at home.
It could come down to a trip to Tulane in the finale, but I have a feeling they may have already locked up a trip to the AAC title game by then.
Colorado State Rams
To Win Mountain West (+1600)
Last season, Colorado State would have been better off lining up with five bags of leaves as opposed to its starting offensive line. The Rams gave up 59 sacks in 2022, the worst sack total in the nation. Sacks inflicted 399 negative yards against their season totals.
So, if you see starting quarterback Clay Millen, don’t pat him on the back; he may just instinctually fold into the fetal position.
Despite the constant harassment, Millen still set the NCAA record for completion percentage by a freshman at 72.2%. And if he can operate at that level under constant duress, imagine what he could do behind an average offensive line.
Millen is the highest-rated passer to ever sign with CSU, and he’ll be throwing to a potentially elite — by Group of Five standards — receiving corps.
A portal infusion of offensive line talent brings small-school linemen from the likes of Lane College, Lamar and Monmouth. As a whole, the Rams are injecting experienced blockers with 66 career starts who are all much bigger options than they had last season. A small line now averages 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds per starter.
Tory Horton, a future NFL Draft pick at wide receiver, is the headliner of the offense, and there’s a ton of offseason buzz around Justus Ross-Simmons.
Action Network’s Collin Wilson spoke with head coach Jay Norvell at Mountain West Media Days, and Norvell made sure to mention JRS as a potential breakout star in 2023.
Toss in a stud tight end from the portal in BYU’s Dallin Holker, and this team is loaded in the pass-catching department.
Want more? Norvell and his staff snatched one of my favorite FCS players when they convinced Kobe Johnson to come to Fort Collins from North Dakota State. He has great vision and can hit the home run, something he did quite often at NDSU.
The defense was great against the pass last year, and it's bringing back four of its five starters in the secondary.
What the Rams need is someone to emerge on the edge as a pass rusher opposite Mohamed Kamara after he posted 16 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks last season. The buzz out of spring is that Nuer Gatkuoth is ready to be the Robin to Kamara’s Batman.
If he does, this team will have the goods to not only make the MWC title game but perhaps also upset Washington State and/or Colorado early in the season.